- Matthew Odam American-Statesman Staff
Walk into the tiny Republic of Sandwich deli and you won’t encounter the processed meats and cookie-cutter bins of shredded lettuce and pre-chopped veggies that you find at ubiquitous chain sandwich shops. Instead you’ll catch scented wafts of savory meats roasted in house and glimpses of Brussels sprouts being removed from the oven.
I haven’t asked partners Thomas Gardner and Pete O’Donnell about the name of their Rosedale deli, located catty-corner to Epicerie and Fonda San Miguel, but to me the moniker represents liberation and the desire to break the constraints of low expectations most have of generic sandwich shops.
The partners have a respect for quality ingredients, owing to their time as cooks over the better part of the past decade. After meeting while working at a resort in Vail, Colo., the two moved to Austin, with the Culinary Institute of America graduate O’Donnell serving stints at Searsucker and St. Philip and Gardner in the prepared foods department at Whole Foods in the Domain.
They opened Republic of Sandwich in October, serving breakfast and lunch to a neighborhood apparently hungry for new options, judging by the steady crowds and repeat customers. The roster of about 10 sandwiches, served throughout the day, packs enough meat to carry you over into dinner.
Strands of tender roasted pork tumbled from puffed Amaroso rolls (the softest things to ever come out of the City of Brotherly Love) on the the Earl ($9), a sandwich that also included brawny layers of smoked ham, pickle spears, Swiss cheese and an overwhelming amount of mustard. That same pork, which derived flavor mostly from its fatty edges, spilled from the (215), a sandwich that exhibited the chefs’ culinary creativity with fibrous lollipops of broccoli rabe and slippery peppers ($9).
Independence brings with it responsibility, and the freedom the chefs find in breaking from the homogeny of standard sandwich constructs can lead to an unruly product. Both pork sandwiches needed more restraint and a better balance of flavors, as was the case with a cold roast beef sandwich piqued with horseradish cream and peppernade. The beef lacked flavor and was piled to an unmanageable mess.
Republic of Sandwich’s take on the Reuben found better harmony, with smoke-dazed pastrami, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing and sauerkraut blending into the perfect marriage of savory, tangy, crunchy and funky. More funk was called for on the kimchi Brussels sprouts that swam in copious amounts of a sweet and sticky sauce ($2).
The unbridled ethos of the creative Republic of Sandwich wakes up early and ready to rock. The shop serves breakfast daily, and the breakfast tacos boast as much filling per square inch as the sandwiches. Because of the claustrophobic kitchen, in which they do considerable work, the guys don’t have room to make their own bagels or tortillas. But it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
Republic takes airy and pliant tortillas and fills them with some unexpected ingredients like broccoli rabe and homemade pesto, but don’t worry — they don’t forsake the eggs. I’ve never seen such a chaotic cascade of eggs in a breakfast taco. Wet and fluffy, the twisting and steaming piles served as bed and buttress for the load of toppings. With the crunch of chopped potato hash and peppered pop of pastrami, the Steve ($3) resembled a dish of steak-and-eggs encapsulated in a handheld delivery system. The eponymous Republic taco ($3) gave a sneak peak of lunchtime’s roasted pork and kimchi, bound by the gooey grasp of melted cheddar. The only major miss on the tacos was the El Guapo ($3), its turkey chorizo delivering a fiery kick that numbed my tastebuds.
Now it’s time to put on the hypocrite hat. While I think the sandwiches and some of the tacos at Republic of Sandwich require editing, my favorite thing at the neighborhood deli is unapologetically unrestrained. Served on a toasted everything bagel from locals Rockstar Bagels, the Sacrilicious ($8) puts an unholy spin on the classic lox and bagel. Republic smokes their brown-sugar-cured salmon, layers the fish in satiny waves and tops it with crispy bacon, spicy peppers, bossy red onions and Swiss cheese for an oily, smoky, sweet, crunchy and creamy breakfast sandwich.
The unruly sandwich speaks to the double-edged blessing and curse of passionate creation — sometimes it can lead to a sloppy but well-intentioned love note, and other times the results can be sublime.